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Friday, January 14, 2011

Sticks and Strings

This is an article that appeared in the Yarnmarket newsletter. I wanted to share it with my knitting friends. I think knitting goes as far back as fiber and fabrics. Historically, there is some disagreement to the origin of knitting.

A Brief History of The Knitting Needle

The knitting needle that we use today is a remarkably modern invention. This is the version you'll find in your own supply closet in a myriad of sizes and materials. Whether it is crafted of bamboo, ebony, aluminum or the carbon fiber composite used for Stealth jet airplanes, the modern needle has a long, tapered shaft that's pointed at one end and has a knob at the other to prevent stitches from dropping off. It's hard to believe that this exquisitely simple and practical tool was invented almost yesterday- in the 19th century- although knitting has been popular for over 1000 years.

Archeologists, historians and fiber fanatics alike marvel at the intricate detailing and remarkbly fine gauge of out earliest known examples of the craft- a pair of cotton socks dating back to Medieval times. These "Coptic socks" from Egypt were knitted using sticks to create a stockinette stitch. Purling and other stitches had not been developed yet so multiple needles were used, knitting in the round. Sometimes these round tubes of fabric were cut open ( a process called "steeking") to create a flat piece of fabric.

Some archeologists suggest that the earliest needles may have been fabricated of metal, probably brass, in order to achieve the fine gauge used on the Coptic socks. Can you imagine painstaking effort and incredible patience that must have gone into knitting 10 to 12 stitches and 10 rows per inch??

Because the needles would have resembled very thin rods and sticks, it's possible that archeologists may never find examples of the tools. We may just have to depend upon their conclusions after examining the fabrics.

If we fast forward 400 years to the 1400's we begin to see knitting needles presented in works of art like the various "knitting Madonnas" that depict the Virgin Mary. In these priceless paintings we have positive proof that knitters were using double-points. The craft continued to evolve with the introduction of purling and other new stitches, and examples of items that were created in those days are masterpieces of color, fiber and intricacy. Needles evolved to become unimaginably fine: some knitted items that remain have as many as 25 stitches and 32 stitches to the inch!

As knitting became more widely practiced by the common man, a myriad of styles and tool preferences emerged. Today we have a mind-boggling array from which to select- straight, circulars or space-aged double points. Whatever you choose to knit, and however you choose to knit it, you can be certain that amongst the hundreds of needles available there is going to be one that is absolutely perfect for the task.

And to think it probably got started over a thousand years ago with a couple of sticks and some thread.

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